CHAMPAIGN — The brown mustache that partially extends past Nick Hird’s upper lip is a good conversation starter.
So is his running.
Both items excelled Saturday during the fifth annual Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon for the 29-year-old Naperville resident who won the race.
“It gets a lot of people to cheer for you that might think, ‘Oh, it’s just another random guy,’ ” Hird said. “It’s one of those things where I do enjoy any and everyone to support you along the way. It’s a draw at least for everyone else based on how awkward it looks.”
Running his third marathon — and first Illinois Marathon — Hird toured the 26.2-mile course faster than anyone else. His winning time of 2 hours, 23 minutes, 56 seconds made sure he was a popular person to talk to once he crossed the finish line to a steady stream of applause at the 50-yard line of Memorial Stadium.
“It was one of those things where I wish I had more in me because you have a big old crowd, and I’m just trying to get to the line,” Hird said. “It definitely kind of gets your emotions up and makes you feel good for a few seconds. I had a pace in mind. I thought I had a good chance at the course record if things went well. Over one of these distances, you’re never quite sure how your body is going to feel.”
The course record of 2:22:46 Jason Lokwatom established in last year’s race will stay safe for another year. Hird has run faster than that, and did so in his first marathon, the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., three years ago with a time of 2:22:16. His other marathon prior to Saturday came at the Chicago Marathon last fall.
“All of them have their own different environment to it with pluses and minuses,” Hird said. “A plus was we had good weather (Saturday in Champaign-Urbana), and of course, this course can be very, very windy if it wants to be.”
Even though this was Hird’s first time running the Illinois Marathon, he’s hardly a novice. Hird helped Rock Island Alleman win the 2002 Class A state boys’ track and field title by winning the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. He went on to become a three-time All-America distance runner at North Central College in Naperville. He still serves as an assistant coach at the Division III school and owns his own running store in Naperville.
So he had an idea of what he wanted to accomplish.
“The first mile I went out and felt extremely comfortable,” Hird said. “I realized my split was way too fast. I tried to settle in a little bit. There was a group of half-marathoners right there, and at that point, instead of sitting completely back, I just tried to run with the group. I knew I’d only have them for 12 or 13 miles if they turned off at that point. Once they turned off, it was a lot tougher, but I just tried to maintain pace and relax the last half. I didn’t want to overextend too much so I couldn’t make it to the finish line.”
Racing for the first time since the Boston Marathon bombings less than two weeks ago had a personal connection for Hird, who qualified for next year’s race in Boston with his time that was well below the qualifying standard.
“There was a running store we know very well that had its front window shattered, and those guys were the ones bringing people outside, making tourniquets, saving people’s lives and saving people’s limbs,” Hird said. “If all I’ve got to do is deal with a couple hours of pain, it puts it in perspective to get out there, enjoy what we stand for and hope it’s some sort of tribute to them.”